The Freedom Conundrum
By Aharon Levi with Braha Bender
On July 13th, 1977, New York City plunged into darkness. Downed traffic lights sent thousands of cars and buses careening into accidents. Subways ground to a dead halt inside pitch-black tunnels. Telephone lines were silenced. The millions of glittering lights and bright windows of America’s metropolis were exchanged for candles and shadow.
In 1965, just a little over ten years earlier, a different power outage had taken place. The event was still affectionately referred to by the phrase “Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?” Many of the citizens who had experienced the neighborly atmosphere of 1965 took to the streets in 1977 with a smile. But this time things were different. The New York of 1965 was long gone.
The difference wasn’t in the power outage. Once again, as in the sixties, it would take over twenty-four hours until the city regained electricity. The difference was in the people. Goodbye, neighborly smiles.
“Night of Terror”
This time howls of violence filled the air. Vandalism ran rampant. Witnesses reported kids driving stolen cars up to grated storefronts, roping the grates to the backs of the cars and looting the wrecked property even in broad daylight. Thieves paraded the streets flashing stolen electronics, furniture, and other wares from some 1,500 gutted properties.
Arson also hit hard. At one point two whole Broadway blocks were simultaneously on fire. All told, over 1,000 fires were responded to that night. These fires didn’t start by accident. None of it was by accident.
And then, on August 15th, 2003, it happened again. This time it was even worse. Fifty million men, women and children throughout New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Ohio, Michigan, and even neighboring Ottawa and Toronto were suddenly left powerless. Half a million people climbed out of abruptly blackened subway tunnels. Land lines, cell phones, and computers went dumb. Elevators stopped dead. Gas stations didn’t work and airports couldn’t function. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg got on the radio to warn citizens to stay calm, cooperate, and drink plenty of water in the August heat. Really? Thanks, Michael.
As electricity flowed back into people’s lives, the typical American questions began yammering away on all the reignited media sources: where did the power outage catch you? Elevator or office? How did you feel? Did you think it was a terrorist attack? Did you panic? Did you ever think this could happen in the United States of America? And, of course, the stereotypical Israeli-type questions hit the airways running as well: has an investigative committee been established yet?
All these questions took the floor loud and strong, filling ears and minds with all the typical answers.
But the real questions? The real questions never even got a chance.
The Gift of Time
And so man created a monster. Our dependence on electricity and technology bit us in the heel. Two days went by and the crisis was over. The beat went on. But what would have happened to civilization across the Northeast and Midwestern United States if the electrical outage had lasted for a week? Or for a month?
In his book The Sane Society, Professor Erich Fromm takes a unique angle on New York’s 1977 and 2003 collapse: “There is no belief more prevalent than the idea that we, the citizens of the twentieth century, are absolutely sane. But are we so sure that we do not delude ourselves in this? Many mental hospital patients are convinced that it’s all the rest that are crazy.
“Imagine what would happen to our advanced western culture were just four weeks to go by without the functioning of any theatres, radios, televisions, sports events or newspapers. There is no doubt that within even this short time thousands of individuals would suffer nervous breakdowns…the moment these ‘sedatives’ were taken away.”
In retrospect, it seems that the development of advanced technologies should have given man the most precious gift possible, the gift of time. Thanks to technology, a larger sum of activities can be accomplished in a single 2012 lifetime than could be accomplished just a few generations ago in over three hundred years.
Also thanks in part to technology, modern medicine has lengthened life itself, adding many years to the average lifespan and significantly improving the quality of these years. For example, the lifespan of the average Frenchman 150 years ago totaled age 45, whereas the lifespan of the average Israeli man today is 78 years. Such facts bring sober men pause.
Once again, though, the superficial dialogue can drown out the real questions. What does modern man do with this incalculable gift? What do we do with our time? The twenty-first century has given us so much extra time, unexpected time, free time. It’s time that we could never, ever have enough money to pay for. After all, how much would you pay for even one extra year of life? Or for that year to be spent on your feet rather than strapped to a gurney? It’s a different world.
However, the disturbing truth is that it’s a world we run away from.
Rat Race, Mouse Trap
The entertainment industry is one of the most highly developed, active, and important industries in the Western World. Billions of dollars flow through this industry every year, changing hands and burning fast, all focused on a single objective: passing the time. Killing free time. And if possible? Killing it just for fun.
In our century alone, the Western World has seen tens of millions of military personnel and ordinary citizens sacrifice their lives in the name of freedom. Bloody battles against evil dictatorships that would steal away individual liberties have been won time and again; the common man has been set free from the shackles that bound him.
Yet all this has led our common man to a strange end. Freed from blatant governmental oppression, he find himself enslaved once again, but this time even more insidiously. This new enslavement is not only against his will, but without his knowledge. His time is sapped and his mind is manipulated, cashed in on by the very culture he had turned to for liberation. According to a 2010 survey by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends about three hours watching TV every single day, to say nothing of Facebook, movies, and all the rest of it.
Dreams get buried under the Pringle crumbs littering the couch. Our newly liberated man becomes another voiceless drone of western culture, his time just another faceless dog on a chain.
Freedom? Liberty? The pursuit of happiness? Time use statistics speak louder than words. The events of 1977 and 2003 speak louder than words. Most of us are not free, most of us are terribly dependent. It seems that for the common man, western culture has failed.
This isn’t easy to face. Most of us think of America as the liberator, not the oppressor. But America and Western culture’s failure is not incidental. The root of the failure of Western culture lies at the heart of its value system, in how it relates to the concept of freedom.
Western culture places freedom at the top of the priority list. Freedom is valued as an end in and of itself. Yet this is exactly where the Western world shoots itself in the foot. Freedom is not an end. Freedom is a means. Ironically, when the pursuit of freedom is positioned as an end rather than a means, liberty devolves into a perverse form of self-enslavement. And the worst thing about enslavement to oneself is that there is nowhere to run.
Freedom, freedom, ringing in our ears; it begins to sound like a gong, like terror. What does our common man do when he has finally won the magical gift, all wrapped up with a bow and wrapped in silk and linen? He eagerly opens up the box to find that it is empty, and no amount of “entertainment” or “killing time” can make that emptiness go away. What then? The taskmaster, his existential hunger, is never satisfied because sitcoms are not satisfying. His time, his very life, is eaten up staring at inert glowing screens. And what else is there?
It’s no accident that Sunday, America’s day off, is the most common day for suicides in that country.
Yet the original historical president for the pursuit of freedom as a human right and duty was the Jewish exodus from Egypt. In contrast to the typical Western conception of freedom, the Hebrew word for freedom is cherus, very similar to the Hebrew word charus. Charus means engraved. As the saying goes, some things are written in stone.
The Jews did not leave Egypt for an empty freedom, the self-enslavement of the west, but to be engraved with a deeper truth, a fulfilling purpose. Rather than serving Pharaoh, or serving their own flippant lusts and instincts, the Jewish People committed to serving the Almighty. Freedom was not their final objective, but their means to an end. The real goal was to partner with the Almighty in the actualization of His glorious Torah, His exquisite master plan for humanity and all of creation. It wasn’t at all about leaving Egypt in order to free up more time to go to the movies. Six hundred and thirteen mitzvos (commandments) were about to become the Jews’ six hundred and thirteen opportunities for genuine and lasting fulfillment.
This wasn’t some big secret. Everyone knew right from the start, “When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve G-d on this mountain.” (Shemos-Exodus 3:12) The Almighty spoke these words to Moshe (Moses) at the burning bush, the very first executive brainstorming session for the entire project. The Jews knew exactly what the deal was, and they wanted in.
What did they know about freedom that we have forgotten?
Corridor to the Palace
Bob Dylan put it this way: “You gotta serve somebody.” It’s not just a hippy lyric, it’s an existential truth. The question is only whom you are going to serve. Facing that fact is one of the milestones of human maturity. Choosing meaningful priorities is what defines us as human as opposed to animal, as fulfilled or existentially empty. Choosing wisely can be the difference between life and death on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Parashas VaYikra sees the Almighty instructing Moshe about how to bring an animal offering: “When a man among you brings an offering to Hashem – from the cattle or from the flock shall you bring your offering.” (VaYikra-Leviticus 1:2)
Animal offerings, known as korbanos, were the Jewish response to human error. When the immediate repercussions of poor moral decisions meant the slaughtering of expensive livestock, accountability for one’s actions became abundantly clear.
Furthermore, korbanos made the difference between human and animal visceral. When a person behaves like an animal, the consequences of his behavior are destructive to himself, to other people and to society as a whole. Good examples of this are theft, vandalism, rape and all of the other heinous acts that were shamelessly flaunted in 1977 and 2003.
Killing an animal for an offering was not an act of violence, it was an act of anti-violence. When the sinner internalized the severity of what he did, the likelihood was that he would not do it again. The hot blood of the beast pouring beneath his hands brought home what behaving like an animal really meant. It took the ethical dilemma out of the realm of the theoretical and very much down to earth.
Korbanos reminded the Jewish People of the immutable fact that the body, the animalistic part of each of us, is subject to the law of the jungle: kill or be killed. Excuse the pun, but it’s no way to live. Letting go of the animal, the symbolic animal of the offering and the identification with the animal within themselves, was the Jews’ prerequisite to reclaim their identification with the higher truth of their identities, their truly human self, their capacity for free choice and meaningful, godly decisions in their relationships with other people.
Most importantly, though, korbanos brought the rat race to an abrupt halt. Everything finite has an end; everything physical eventually dies. Beyond financial consequences, beyond visceral reminders about our choices vis-à-vis other people, korbanos spoke to the core of individual identity.
The most powerful message of the korban was that if the only thing that matters to you is your body and it’s lusts, get ready to end up just like the beast under your hands. Because one thing about this world is certain – none of us get out of here alive. Unless your identity is focused on things that have no end – spiritual qualities like love, integrity, wisdom, and other forms of greatness – then, as the Talmud Brachos says, “all to death are standing.”
Facing the inevitable finitude of human life can lead to a number of responses. Most North Americans scramble to fill their finite lives with as much “fun” as possible. In contrast, the Jew tries to fill her finite life with that which is infinite. The Jew opens the exquisite gift box of freedom to discover a priceless jewel, a secret that nobody can ever take away from her: this entire world is nothing but a corridor leading to our true destination. We have been given an opportunity to prepare in the corridor before entering the palace.
The true question that all the babble obscures, the ultimate question, the question at the pulsating heart of each of our lives is: who will we be when we get there?
Eyes of a Child
During an Arachim seminar some time ago, one particularly feisty middle-aged man struck up a debate with of one of the lecturers, author Aharon Levi. Sitting in the dining room between presentations, a fast paced back-and-forth covered topics from the legitimacy of Torah’s views on various hot-button issues to the authenticity and historicity of the Torah at all. How do we know it’s true? How can you believe that? Can you prove it? Many good questions volleyed with many thorough responses as the discussion weathered on.
“Look,” the man finally said, “I see everything you’re saying, it all makes sense, but…”
His gaze suddenly shifted to a group of elderly men that had seated themselves in the lobby of the hotel that was visible from the dining room. “What’s that?,” he asked abruptly.
“They’re studying Talmud,” the lecturer answered.
“No, no, you don’t understand,” insisted the man. “What is that? The spark in their eyes, the fire, don’t you see it? They have such vitality in their eyes.”
Not understanding the question, the lecturer asked the older man what he was talking about.
“I am a doctor at a very exclusive old age home,” the man explained. “I know what people’s eyes look like at eighty. They’re dim, shadowed, closing. But look at their eyes,” he continued, pointing. “They have the eyes of children. How can it be?”
“It’s the Talmud,” responded the lecturer simply.
The man looked up with a serious expression on his face. As a few moment went by, still gazing at the group of elderly scholars nearby, the lecturer noticed that tears had sprung to the man’s eyelids. “Okay. Now I see what you’re talking about. I don’t need any more proofs for Torah.”
It’s probably safe to say that the American power outages wouldn’t have bothered that group of elderly Talmud scholars. Why? Because if the power outage caught them in the middle of a study session, they would have just kept on studying by candlelight.
In that light, it’s a shame the power outage couldn’t have lasted longer, but it’s a good thing it only lasted as long as it did. Otherwise Professor Fromm may have been proven even more correct. 1977 and 2003 showed all too plainly that the moment the distractions of the world grind to a halt, most people simply fall apart.
This couldn’t be more different than the Jewish response to material life. Take the need to earn a living. If the whole shebang up and disappeared, the Torah-integrated Jew would not be confused or disoriented. In fact, he would be delighted. Time is not there to be killed. As Maimonides, also known as the Rambam, wrote in the twelfth century:
“The sages and the prophets did not long for the days of the mashiach (messiah) in order to have power over the whole world, nor in order to dominate the idol worshippers, nor in order to be praised by the other nations, nor in order to eat, drink, and be merry, but to have the availability for Torah and its wisdom without barriers and distractions.”
The Torah-integrated Jew neither depends on nor revels in the Western rat race, technology, the entertainment industry, and all the rest. If anything, he is apprehensive of it. Could the flashing lights and bleeping signals make him forget his mission and the purpose of his life? They do for so many others. The western man glorifies himself in the boom and zoom of distraction, both in his work and in his leisure, since both allow him to temporarily forget the real emptiness at the core of his value system, his identity, and his life.
The Jew aspires to more. What is real freedom about? “The servants of time are the slaves of slaves; the servant of the Almighty alone is free.”